Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review: An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of James Wilkinson

Many of my friends would charaterize my interest in American military topics as obscure.  No, let's be real, they'd call it weird, or, perhaps more charitably, fringe. I find the federal period of the U.S. Army fascinating  It was highly political, pinched by fiscal and philosophical conflicts.  The early army was also dominated by highly colorful characters, such as Secretaries of War Henry Knox and Alexander Hamilton.  It also had two highly influential Major Generals, Anthony Wayne and James Wilkinson. 

Those who aren't attached to the period might know Wayne, Mad Anthony, because of his distinguished Revolutionary War career.  Wilkinson is a name less well known, however, a man flying under the mainstream historical radar.  James Wilkinson, also a Revolutionary War veteran, became perhaps the most important traitor in American history.  Though Wilkinson's duplicity was well known to me, a more complete picture of the man emerged in Andro Linklater's 2009 book An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Life of James Wilkinson.

Linklater paints a familiar portrait of Wilkinson.    Entering the army at nineteen in 1775 at the siege of Boston, Wilkinson was strictly a staff officer who engaged in the many political feuds of the Continental Army.  Never a combat commander, he resigned from the army to seek the life of a Pennsylvania country squire after marrying Ann Biddle, daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania merchant. Wilkinson failed as a Pennsylvania esquire, far outspending his substantial resources in land speculation and entertaining.  Forced to give up his Bucks County estate, he followed many other land seekers into the Kentucky territory.  There, he also borrowed considerable sums hoping to strike it rich in land.  Instead he hopelessly mired himself in debt and in 1788, seeking a regular income, re-joined the Army. 
Anthony Wayne from a portrait in 1796 following his triumph at Fallen Timbers and the Treaty of Greenville.  Wayne was Major-General in the United States Army and Wilkinson's superior.  Wilkinson did all he could to undermine Wayne.
Wilkinson remained in the army for almost the rest of his life.  He came to dominate the era of his service as other Americans have done-Winfield Scott, Phil Sheridan, Nelson Miles.  He rose to be the senior general of the United States Army and was involved with most of the important events the army engaged in.

What emerges from Linklater's narrative are some important themes in Wilkinson's life.
Andrew Ellicott was hired by Congress to determine the boundaries of the new capital city, and, more importantly create accurate maps of the boundaries with Spain in the Floridas and Louisiana.  Wilkinson feared Ellicott would reveal his employment as a Spanish spy and slandered him. 
First, Wilkinson was utterly self-interested.  His status as a double agent in the pay of Spain was simply to pay off his ridiculous debts from land speculation.  This would be terrible enough, but Wilkinson went out of his way to smear the reputations of those he thought were close to knowledge of his treason .  His commander from 1794-96, Anthony Wayne, began to understand Wilkinson's connection to Spanish New Orleans, and Wilkinson began to undermine the general with his troops and in Congress.  Andrew Ellicott was appointed by Congress to survey the boundaries of the United States and Spain from 1794-96.  In his travels, the honest and earnest Pennsylvanian learned of payments to Wilkinson from Spain.  When it became clear that Ellicott would publicize this information, Wilkinson did his best to make the surveyor out to be under Spanish influence.  Wilkinson never forgot that he was the most important person in his universe.

For lack of a better word, Wilkinson was a drama queen.  He loved intrigue and was happy to participate in it throughout his life.  Wilkinson was an intriguer during the Revolutionary War.  As a staff officer, it seems he had nothing better to do than intrigue against Philip Schuyler, then against Benedict Arnold, then against his boss, Horatio Gates during the Conway Cabal.  He intrigued against Anthony Wayne during the Fallen Timbers campaign.  Perhaps his biggest intrigue was during the Burr Affair in 1806 when he seemed, as commander of American forces in Louisiana, to support Burr's plot for a breakaway republic in the Southwest, but finally withheld assistance and the plot failed.  Loving the stage, Wilkinson was also court-martialed as part of the Burr trial.  His opening remarks took three days to deliver. 
Portrait of Wilkinson in 1813 after his capture of Mobile and before his failure at Crysler's Farm

Despite these severe character flaws, Linklater does paint a three dimensional portrait of Wilkinson.  He was a devoted husband to his wife, Ann, who died of tuberculosis after 25 years of marriage.  He understood the nature of frontier soldiering, the isolation of frontier posts and their debilitating affect on soldiers and their commanders.  He was an active commanding general, regularly inspecting posts and demanding high levels of readiness from his troops. Linklater even details Wilkinson's sole success as a battlefield commander, capturing Mobile for the United States during the War of 1812. 

 However, the real strength in Linklater's story is the story of continuing contentiousness between Spain and the United States from 1788-1808.  The two former allies were constantly on the verge of war.  Chiefly it was conflict over the western boundaries of the United States, but it also had a great deal to do with Spanish fear the United States would step in and gobble up New Orleans before striking out for Santa Fe and silver-rich Chihuahua in Mexico.  For the Spanish, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Zebulon Pike's second exploring mission were military missions aimed at discovering the defenses of New Spain.  They needed a man like Wilkinson-the ranking general in the U.S. Army-to inform of them of U.S. intentions.  That the Spanish hold on Mexico dissolved into revolution n 1810 only gives credence to their fears.

 Linklater's book is a good read.  It fills in a gap in America's military history and provides a fair assessment of this important figure in the U.S. Army

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